Expanding Home with Hardscape

Home is not contained within the walls of a house. Something as simple as a well-placed, charming feature or even texture in an outdoor space can be enough to lure us away from the cooped up essence of daily life. Our patios, pathways or pergolas provide a small gateway to nature, which imparts a wholly unique ambiance to each experience we make there.

“Creating outdoor living spaces is huge right now,” Chad Wolfrath, owner of Wolfrath’s Nursery and Landscaping in Hortonville, says. “Everything from outdoor kitchens and bars to sitting areas, fire features and pavers around pools or hot tubs.”

For those less acquainted with landscaping terminology, hardscaping is simply any outdoor features that are not earth or plant life. The most obvious examples are patios and decks, but more elaborate open-air structures have been gaining popularity.

As with building homes, a hardscape project that begins with a properly laid foundation will ensure the structure’s longevity.

“If the foundation is not right, you will have issues down the road with puddling or cracking,” Stacey Reitzner of Fox Valley Stone & Brick in Neenah says. “Sometimes the base is the toughest part. You really need to make sure you’re getting deep enough into the ground, and that it’s tampered correctly, especially with Wisconsin weather. With anyone I’m working with, that’s the number one thing I focus on, making sure this is done the right way.”

But before the foundation is set, you’ll want to have all your long-term needs accounted for. “Having a good plan is essential. Grow into the plan. Don’t restrict your future needs,” Wolfrath says. “For instance, if you’re putting in an outdoor bar feature or living space, you’ll want to consider running electrical lines to plug in a blender, phone chargers.”

Being realistic now saves you money and headaches in the long run.
Jim Haak of Black-Haak Heating & Cooling in Greenville, who has seen a marked increase in these kinds of projects in the community, shares some advice.

“Maybe the gas grill or fire table is down the road a couple years. Still, you should be thinking about where that gas line will be running, or the electrical for an outlet, so you don’t have to bust up your concrete later, which adds to your cost.”

The last couple years have made it almost necessary to have some kind of outside accommodations if you hoped to entertain guests. But beyond that need, many of us snuck in some spare hours al fresco just to scavenge crumbs of normalcy and be amongst other living things.

The soil and plant life, or “softscape,” are equally important considerations in a landscape project and should pair harmoniously with the hardscape features in both function and form. In plant beds, materials like mulch can do without the decoration of a hardscaped border, relying on the relaxed, yet tidy feel of a natural edge.

“We’ll come in with our equipment that will cut a nice trench that the mulch will spill into, creating that edge,” Dan Vechart of Schmalz Custom Landscaping and Garden Center in Appleton explains. “Now, over time, you’re going to have to cut a new edge. But it’s a really simple, natural look, and with mulch, some people are OK with just a nice clean cut.”

The next upgrade in edging options would be polyboard—the plastic, bendable borders that can wind seamlessly along perimeters. Basic and utilitarian, polyboard holds its edge, but can be visually uninspiring.

“Then you see black or mill finish aluminum edging, which has a really sleek and modern profile,” Vechart adds. “You hardly see it at all. From there we move into things like bullet edgers.”

Now, if your landscape was a person’s outfit, bullet edgers would be the belt. These are the colored concrete blocks that join together at ball and socket ends. Bullet edgers set a clear and firm boundary around plant beds and can bring a stunning contrast or subtle coordination to the colors or textures present in itself and on either side of its border. They really tie the whole outfit together.

Another popular higher-end edging material is Lannon stone, a type of limestone or dolomite rock found in southeast Wisconsin. Often cut leaving rough faces or edges, Lannon stone edging or retaining walls tend to exemplify the imperfect side of the natural aesthetic, yet can add serious sophistication to your landscape.

“The nice thing about Lannon edging is that it’s very durable and can sit flush with the ground so you don’t have to worry about dinging your mower blades on it,” Vechart says.

Regardless of the selected edge paver used for plant beds and other softscape features, the local experts encourage extra space for long-term growth to prevent the eventual removal of overgrown bushes or trees. 

Landscape edging and paving go hand in hand, and many edging materials are also viable as pavers. Fox Valley Stone & Brick is excited to introduce porcelain pavers into the local market. Porcelain has the benefit of absorbing very little water and therefore is fairly impervious to stains.

“Concrete, yes, you want to seal it,” Reitzner says. “There are pavers out there now advertised as having some coating on them, but I still recommend sealing it, especially if the client is particular about the color.”

There is certainly a lot to consider in any landscape design and implementation. Not to contradict the do-it-yourself attitude that runs so strongly today, but there are some aspects of hardscaping projects that may be frustrating or even dangerous for the average layman.

“If you’re doing the project yourself, you should do some research on the laws and codes in your area,” Wolfrath urges. “Every county is a little bit different, and if you’re on a lake, you’ll have to consider the impervious and pervious surface requirements. So you need someone to do those calculations to make sure your project is to code.” 

Vechart agrees. “A landscape company can help coordinate the various subcontractors involved in an outdoor project—everything from construction, custom pieces, to gas and electric—making it an easier experience for the homeowner.”

Weighing practicality and expense can be the most difficult aspect of executing these projects. While something like an outdoor pizza oven may sound like an exciting addition to your cooking and entertaining toolbox, it may be difficult to justify the initial price tag if you’re not really churning out the pies. But we all have our passions. And some things in life, like pizza, can reside above such trifles as return on investment. 

 “We’ve been a part of a lot of cool projects recently,” Haak says. “Pools and bars, fireplaces, sitting areas—whatever it may be, people seem to be investing more in expanding the comforts of home to the outdoors. That seems to be a product of the times.”

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